Is Noah Historically Accurate?

Ok, I admit it.  I love a good epic film.  And as a student of the Bible (and yes. . .  a fan of film star Russell Crowe), I’m looking forward to seeing Paramount Pictures new movie Noah.  It’s hopefully better than Robin Hood, which I enjoyed, but admittedly found a bit disappointing.

As expected, however, Darren Aronofsky’s forthcoming film has already been the subject of considerable controversy.  And it hasn’t even reached theaters yet.   A recent news article reported that a disclaimer has now been added to the film acknowledging that it was “inspired by the story of Noah” and that it takes “artistic license” with the biblical account.  I guess this is necessary.  Apparently, Phil Cooke, a board member of the National Religious Broadcaster group, expressed serious concerns regarding Hollywood’s latest attempt to bring the Bible to the big screen. And according to the report, his criticisms led Paramount to add the note lest those who watch the film make the mistake of assuming that they just witnessed an accurate portrayal of the biblical story.

Cooke is reported to have said that his group believed Paramount needed to inform audiences that their film is “historically inaccurate,” which is something I find interesting.  Whether you agree or disagree with the move, Cooke’s assertion raises an important question.   While the story of Noah has and certainly continues to be a source of inspiration for countless Bible believers, can the account be considered “historically accurate”?[1]

In answering this question, perhaps the first thing to note is that the story of Noah appears in a section of the Bible that many scholars refer to as the book’s “prehistory,” meaning the time before the historical era as recognized by its original authors.  The opening chapters of Genesis (the Bible’s first book) present grand mythic accounts of cosmic creation, talking snakes, impossibly long human lifespans, an originally unified single human language, and yes, a catastrophic flood.  These stories prepare readers for the Bible’s central focus on the family of Israel, a people God chose to maintain a special relationship with.  The “historical” age (not in the sense of accuracy, but from the perspective of a world that actually operates according to the rules we know) begins with the biblical story of Abraham in Genesis 12.

Prior to that time, Genesis is filled with myth.  So. . . history?

To be quite honest, I’m surprised that anyone would worry that someone might assume that a feature-lenth film would not include a bit of artistic license on any topic.  And after all, there’s really not much to the basic biblical plot.  God is angry with the earth’s inhabitants and He sends a catastrophic flood; however, to preserve human existence God has Noah and his family construct a massive ark to be filled with animals.  Add in a sacrifice at the end, and that’s pretty much it.

And yet, even though the story is quite basic in some respects, a careful reading of Gen 6-8:22 reveals a series of significant narrative challenges that require explanation if readers are to truly make sense of the account.  These issues suggest that when it comes to biblical Noah, we’re dealing with an account that was not concerned with the issue of historicity in the way  Cooke’s National Religious Broadcaster group assumes. For example, Genesis 6:19 states that God commanded Noah to bring with him on the ark animals, “two of every sort . . . male and female.” However, as the story continues, we read in Genesis 7:2 that God commanded Noah to bring with him not “two of every kind, male and female,” but rather seven pairs of clean animals and two of the unclean (meaning those that could not rightfully be given to God as a sacrifice).

In the same article drawing attention to Cooke’s concerns, we learn that famous Young Earth Creationist, Ken Ham, has complained that Aronofsky’s film does not truly follow the biblical account since “[i]t appears as if every species was crammed in the Ark instead of just the kinds of animals, thus mocking the Ark account the same way secularists do today.”  To be honest, I’m not at all certain what Ham means by “species” versus “kind.”  But we ought to note that part of the story of Noah indicates that Noah placed two of every species of animal on the Ark, whereas another section directly contradicts this view, telling readers that really, Noah brought seven of some species.  So which version is “historically accurate”?  Two of every “kind” or two of simply every unclean kind?

Genesis 8:6 tells readers that the flood lasted for forty days, yet  two verses earlier it states that the waters subsided at the end of a hundred fifty days. Verse 7 indicates that in order to discover if dry land existed, Noah sent out a raven that did not return. Yet verses 8 and 9 tell us that the bird was actually a dove.  So in reality, the account is really not so basic after all.  Was it a raven? Or was it a dove?  Did God command Noah to bring two of every animal, or just two of the unclean? etc.  When scholars seek to identify some sort of consistent plot that accounts for these issues, two distinct versions of the story of Noah eventually emerge, both entangled within the same biblical story.  It’s actually quite clear that instead of a biblical story of Noah and the flood, we actually have two contradictory accounts that have been blended together by a scribal editor.  So if movie goers are concerned with the issue of historicity, the first question to answer is which biblical version of Noah’s story do they want the film to follow?  Because there really are two of them embedded in this single account.

And if movie goers are concerned with historical accuracy, they must also take into consideration the fact that the biblical story is not even an original “biblical” story.  Biblical Noah is actually a revised version of an earlier Mesopotamian myth.  In 1872, archeologist George Smith translated the now famous Epic of Gilgamesh, a Mesopotamian myth that features a Babylonian version of the flood story.  Since this discovery, scholars have recognized that biblical Noah must be dependent upon an earlier Mesopotamian tradition.

Historically, the unearthing of the flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh was soon followed by discoveries of other Mesopotamian versions of this narrative, including a version found in Enūma Elish (another Mesopotamian myth that tells the story of the chief god of ancient Babylon’s rise to a position of cosmic kingship).  Subsequent archeological discoveries illustrate that the versions of the flood story in these two accounts were actually later forms of the myth and that these flood stories were simply drawing upon even earlier ancient Mesopotamian traditions.

For scholars, the biblical flood story makes greater sense as a Mesopotamian tradition than it does an original Israelite account, since Mesopotamia regularly experienced flood issues via the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.  We know that the shifting tides of the Euphrates were especially turbulent and prone to severe flooding.  It was actually these types of movements that produced the great alluvial plain upon which the city-states of Mesopotamia created the first civilization.  With very little rain to work with, Mesopotamians were forced to develop a complex system of irrigation ditches and canals in order to sustain agricultural production.  Flooding was a real concern. In contrast, flooding was never a major issue in ancient Canaan, i.e. the Bible’s homeland.

In the Biblical flood story, the creation of humankind is presented as a type of “experiment gone awry.”[2]  In terms of creation, Genesis 2 indicates that God made humans to resemble the gods so that they could assist with agricultural labors in the Garden of Eden.  In good King James Bible-English, God placed man in the garden to “dress” it and to “keep” it (Gen 2:15).  After God saw that the humans were continually threatening to usurp divinity, the account states that “the LORD regretted that He had made man on earth, and His heart was saddened” (Gen 6:6).

This regret provides justification for the flood story.  And it resembles the Babylonian myth Atrahasis (which seems to have inspired the later account in Enūma Elish) where the gods eventually come to regret the fact that they made humanity. The Babylonian myth indicates that after their creation to serve as agricultural servants to the gods, humans began reproducing too rapidly. Humanity’s constant noise proved irritating to the Mesopotamian god Enlil:

Twelve hundred years [had gone by].

[The land had grown numerous], the peoples had increased,

The [land] was bellowing [like a bull].

The god was disturbed with [their uproar],

[Enlil heard] their clamor.

[He said to] the great gods,

‘The clamor of humankind [has become burdensome to me],

“I am losing sleep [to their uproar].”

As a result of this problem, Enlil determined to eradicate this “experiment gone awry” (i.e. the creation of demi-god agricultural servants), and he initiated a series of catastrophes, including disease and starvation, in order to wipe-out humanity. After each attempt, however, another god, Enki, created a plan to overcome Enlil’s plot by rescuing these human creatures. Finally, Enlil decided to send the great flood, and Enki warned Atrahasis (the Babylonian equivalent of Noah) of the coming disaster and the need to build a boat in order to escape.  The biblical account skips these earlier attempts to eradicate humanity through sickness and starvation and instead moves immediately to the final event, the flood.

In adapting the Bible story of Noah for the big screen, Aronofsky is simply following a trend of revising and taking “creative license” to a story that began in Mesopotamian and continued with the Bible itself.

Scholars believe that there were originally two separate versions of the flood story in Babylonian literature, making it impossible to know which one was directly reformulated by the biblical authors.  One version presents the hero who escapes the destruction in an ark as Atrahasis, the other as a man named Utnapishtim.  Significantly, when we line up the separate accounts, all of the heroes, including Noah, cover their boats with pitch or bitumen. Both Utnapishtim and Noah’s ark finally rest on a mountaintop. Like Noah, Utanapishtim sends out birds (a dove, swallow, and a raven) to determine whether or not the waters of the flood have abated. In all three of the accounts, when the hero emerges from the ark, we read that the hero offers a sacrifice.

After the sacrifice in the story of Atrahasis, the gods come to a compromise and agree to allow humanity to continue living upon the earth. They devised a plan, however, to reduce human population through less drastic catastrophes, such as wild beasts, famine, unsuccessful births. This thematically parallels the resolution we find in the Bible when God reacts to the sacrifice offered by Noah:

“Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and, taking of every clean animal and of every clean bird, he offered burnt offerings on the altar.  The LORD smelled the pleasing odor, and the LORD said to Himself: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man’s mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done” (Gen 8:20-21)

God comes to terms with the fact that man’s heart is simply evil and that He (the LORD) is going to have to simply live with this problem.

While it may be impossible to determine precisely which Mesopotamian version of the flood story influenced this account, there is little doubt that the biblical story of Noah is an Israelite reformulation of this very popular Mesopotamian tradition. It is interesting to consider, however, that the account of Noah begins with a story in which humans are acting too much like gods by engaging in sexual activities with a group of divine beings referred to in the text by the title “sons of God” (Gen. 6:1-4).  It has been noted that this story (and the theme of humanity encroaching upon divinity within J’s prehistory) reverses the idea that appears in Atrahasis. Instead, Atrahasis views prehistory as a time “when Gods were men.”[3]

Therefore, returning to some of the concerns expressed recently concerning Aronofsky’s film, can an Israelite adaptation of a Mesopotamian flood story be deemed “historically accurate”?  Well. . .

In the end, Aronofsky’s Noah may or may not prove to be a great film, only time will tell.   I hope it’s good.  But, we’ll see.  For me, historical accuracy won’t be an issue.  I don’t expect it from the Bible and I certainly don’t expect it from a Hollywood movie.  And yet, continuing the theme of criticism concerning the film’s lack of historicity, Christian screenwriter Brian Godawa has complained:

“Noah is a kind of rural shaman and vegan hippie-like gatherer of herbs. Noah explains that his family tries to study and heal the world whenever possible, like a kind of environmentalist scientist. Noah maintains an animal hospital to take care of wounded creatures or those who survive the evil ‘poachers,’ of the land. Just whose animal rights laws they are violating, I am not sure, since there are only fiefdoms of warlords and tribes. Be that as it may, Noah is the Mother Teresa of animals.”

If this is true, I’m really, really going to like this Noah.

It’s important to note that for many believers, the spiritual power of the biblical account does not derive from its alleged “historical accuracy.”  Instead, the power of Noah is the story’s ability to inspire readers to draw out ideas and principles that increase spirituality.  It is an ancient account that attempts to explain humanity’s complex, yet beautiful relationship to divinity.  And as one Israeli scholar has expressed, “[in the Bible] Israel is told that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians.”[5]   If some readers take from the account the importance of environmentalism and the need to care for the creatures who share our world, that seems to me to be a positive reading, one that would serve us well (despite the fact that it may not reflect the original author’s perspective, but that’s another point).

Still, this message certainly is “biblical.”  According to the creation account in Genesis 1, God commanded humanity to eat only “every seed bearing plant for food” (Gen. 1:29).  One of the resolutions to the flood story is that God takes back this command and allows humans to consume meat (just as long as they don’t do so while drinking blood):

“Now every creature that lives shall be yours to eat; as with the green grasses, I give you all these” (Gen 9:2)

Thus, if the film depicts Noah’s vegetarianism as one of the reason’s he finds favor with God, the depiction might be quite a bit truer to the biblical account than Godawa recognizes. However, when all is said in done, whether the film proves good or bad, an adaption of this story that takes “creative license” with the original story is simply continuing a process that began thousands of years ago concerning a man, an ark, and a flood.



[1]  Much of this information has been adapted from my book Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis-Deuteronomy.

[2]  Tzvi Abush, “Marduk,” in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (ed. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter W. van der Horst; Leiden: Brill, 1995), 1023.

[3] John J. Collins, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 79.

[4] See the analysis provided by William L. Moran, The Most Magic Word: Essays on Babylonian and Biblical Literature; CBQMS 35 (ed. Ronald S. Hendel; Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2002), 73.

[5] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1979): 10.

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